(Alternate post title: The 26.2 Mile Road to Boston)
Three days before the Boston Marathon, most runners are starting to rest up and prep for the race. Most runners are avoiding the gym and staying off their feet. They’re packing and repacking for Boston, or they may already be en route. Me? I’m not most runners.
Three days before Boston, I too was packed and ready to go… but not to Boston. I caught a late afternoon flight down to Richmond and then headed off on a pretty 1.5 hour drive from there to Charlottesville, where I met up with my blog buddy Rebecca and we hit up a great restaurant called Sticks for kebabs and rice. We were carb loading… but not for Boston. Two days before the big race, instead of resting up, I’d be running the Charlottesville Marathon and then hopping on a flight to Boston. Happy taper indeed!
We got to bed fairly early on Friday night, which was good because we had to get up at 5:15am for the 6:30am race start. When I first crawled out from under the covers, I was a little cold, and worried that the race outfit I brought was too light. However, when we stepped outside into the balmy Virginia weather, I realized I had dressed just right.
We found parking downtown and headed to the start, on a cute little pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville. This was a smaller race, and it was really nice to be able to get there so close to race time and not have to sit around waiting or lining up (I’d have enough of that to do on Monday in Boston). Within ten minutes, the race started, and we headed off.
Now, I make a big deal about how I was doing Charlottesville instead of resting up for Boston, but the truth is, I was being smart about it. I needed to get Virginia crossed off after missing both the Richmond Marathon and Virginia Creeper Marathon (I hoped third time would be the charm!), and despite having Boston on Monday, this would be my best opportunity to get it done. I knew it was going to be a hilly course, but I planned to just take it easy and run by feel (not for a specific time). I figured I’d probably get done in 4:30 or 4:45, but I didn’t much care where I fell in that range (or outside of it).
Right in the first uphill of first mile, I met another 50 Stater. We introduced ourselves and chatted about different races we’ve done, from our favorites to least favorites. As we chatted, we kept spotting Marathon Maniacs around and pulling them into the conversation. That’s what I love about running; in the first three miles alone, I had probably made about 10 new friends from all over the country!
I’m not a quiet person, and soon my discussions of the fifty states and also the airline for which I work drew the attention of some other runners (non-50 Staters and Maniacs). Our circle widened even more, and I spent miles 4-7 running with a doctor from DC who was an avid marathoner and wanted to hear about all the races I’ve done. Talking about the races I’ve done was definitely an easy way to let the miles pass by quickly!
The course was really beautiful in this area. We had run out of town, through UVA’s campus, and were now out in the country, with beautiful white fences around the horse farms, and rolling hills as far as we could see. So many times the pictures on the race website are inaccurate and show the course to be much prettier than it is, and I had been worried about that here a bit, since the pictures were all clearly from the fall when the leaves were changing (this race has always been a spring race). But despite the lack of colorful leaves, I found the lush lawns and green foliage to be beautiful as well – it was definitely a very peaceful run.
Around mile 7, we headed up a hill and found it to be very windy at the top. Uh oh – I thought I was not in Kansas anymore! The wind turned out to be short lived, but the top of the hill became notable for another reason. One of my best friends from high school, Becca, has a cousin who runs marathons. She ran the Lewis and Clark Marathon that I paced last year in St. Louis (her hometown), and we met up briefly at the start there. But here she was again, running Charlottesville! We ran together for the next 5 miles or so as we headed back through horse country toward the start.
The course was designed so the first half was an out-and-back that led almost right back to the finish, at which point the half marathoners completed their race while the full marathoners headed out into the neighborhoods for Charlottesville for a double loop before getting to their own finish. I knew that the first half was going to be extremely hilly, but wasn’t too sure about the second half – they had changed the course this year, so no one really knew what to expect. Fortunately, my host Rebecca had run around the river trail that comprised a lot of the second half loop, and told me the trail itself was flat, but there was a big hill when we headed back up from the river (and we’d have to do it twice because of the double loop).
As we came into the end of the first half, we got to go through what must be sorority/fraternity row – all the gorgeous lettered houses. Most of them had a few extra Greek letters spray painted onto them (Zeta and then “TMP”, I think – I’m forgetting now), which I didn’t understand at all. Was it some kind of hazing ritual from another house? I pondered the potential meaning of that as I ran. Being a Saturday morning, it was also kind of neat to see the remnants of the Friday night festivities – one house had a tiki hut set up outdoors that had clearly been shilling drinks. So fun! I miss college theme parties :)
At the 12 mile mark, the half marathoners parted from the full marathoners and the crowd really thinned out. I was still feeling really good even after the rolling hills, though I definitely thought they were hyped up to be a lot worse than they actually were. However, now that it was approaching 8:30 am, the sun was starting to really come out, so it still remained to be seen whether that would be a big factor. With April races, you never know if it’s going to be hot or cold, but here it was either going to be temperate or hot.
We headed through some neighborhoods, going up and down a lot of little rollers as we did so. There were a few that I walked, but the nice thing about this race as compared to other hilly races was that without fail, every uphill had a great downhill on the other side. I’ve done races where the end of a hill just means a flat section on the other side (which I guess is still better than a continuous incline), but when you get a downhill to balance every uphill, you can powerwalk the uphills and then sprint the downhills – leaving you with about the same time as a totally flat course, but giving you some changes of muscles that make it a lot easier on your legs.
The neighborhoods weren’t packed with people, and I don’t think I saw any early morning tailgate parties as I often do along marathon courses (someday when I buy a house, I am going to make sure it’s on the course of some kind of marathon, just so I can throw parties for my friends to do just that!). However, there were a few earlybirds out, and even some with signs. I particularly enjoyed one group’s “Chuck Norris has never run a marathon” sign – I’m a total sucker for Chuck Norris jokes.
As we came into mile 16, I decided to take my Gu with the water at the aid station there… and realized that I hadn’t seen any Gu at any aid stations. That was something the race directors had promised, so it was a little disappointing. Fortunately, I was prepared (for once) with my own.
Right after that aid station, we headed out on the river trail. It was paved, but ran right through the woods, and in retrospect it reminded me a lot of the paved trail through the woods at Humpy’s Marathon in Alaska. It was a bit flatter than Anchorage, but there was still that same peacefulness of running through the woods. I kept passing a bunch of people as I ran (I seemed to pick up speed throughout the race, while other people were slowing down), and I even felt decent about the big hill leading up to mile 18 (I walked some of it, but reached the top totally charged and ready to make up the lost time).
I looked at my watch as we came into mile 20, and I realized my time was pretty awesome: it was about 3:12 into the race, and with 6 miles to go, I should just about hit 4:15 for the finish – 15 to 30 minutes faster than I had planned! However, the 4:15 finish would be if I did 10 minute miles the rest of the way, and I was comfortably running about a 9:30 pace. Doing some quick calculations in my head (ah, math… I love how you distract my brain during a marathon), I figured out that I could just about hit 4:10 if I didn’t walk. Forget saving myself for Boston – it was game on!
Up till now, I had been running a pretty relaxed pace – definitely going at a good clip, but not really pushing myself to try to go faster. However, that was netting me about a 9:30 average pace. With my energy waning a bit in the last 6 miles, I had to push myself some, but it wasn’t like the extreme effort I had to use to PR in Yuma. It still felt very comfortable, but was just not quite effortless. The trickiest part was making sure that I powered up the hills instead of giving up and walking. There were definitely times I did walk the hills, but if I did, I was powerwalking and then I made up for it by sprinting down the other side.
At the top of the mile 24 hill, I saw something I had never seen before in a race. There were kids offering drinks to the runners… but instead of giving it out, eager for you to take a cup from their little hand, they had set up a lemonade stand and were trying to charge 50 cents a cup! I thought it was hilarious. Guess the Charlottesville youth learn early that you should never let someone have something for nothing! Well, hopefully they learned benevolence, as I didn’t see a single runner bought any lemonade from them (it’s not like we all run with quarters in our fuel belts!).
As I came into the final stretch, I just kept checking my watch and trying to push the pace as much as possible. I really wanted to come in under 4:10, but I wasn’t sure how possible it was going to be. I thought I was going to be cutting it really close, though it was hard to say for sure. The reason was another phenomenon I’ve never yet experienced in any race: my Garmin was WAY under the mile markers. Usually courses are certified on the tangents, so if you don’t run them perfectly, you’ll end up with extra mileage at the end. That is, most “26.2″ mile marathons I do usually end up being 26.4, 26.3, or one time, 26.9! Sometimes the individual mile markers are just placed a bit off from where they’re supposed to be, so you end up with one short mile and one long one, but I didn’t think this was the case here, because I was consistently 0.2-0.3 under the mile markers (e.g. at the mile 24 marker, I was only at 23.7 on my Garmin). While the mileage was consistently short, I hoped that it wouldn’t be made up for at the end with a half mile stretch after the mile 26 sign!
At mile 26, we were running on a main road and were supposed to take a right to the finish. I was reminded again of how much I dislike it when you can’t see the finish right from the 26 mile mark, but at least we were retracing the start of the race so I had a pretty good idea of where to go and how far it was. As soon as I saw the finish line, I kicked it up into a sprint (Boston be damned!), and even managed to pass a few people along the way. I checked my watch as I crossed and was floored – 4:08! That’s probably in the top 20% of all my marathon times, and this was *supposed* to be a tough course. Go me!
I had some water at the finish line and collected my medal, then found the free food for runners hidden behind another truck that was selling food for spectators (had to ask around to other runners to locate that!). They gave us a goody bag with a banana, chips, and granola bar, and we also got two slices of pizza – nice. However, I was surprised how hidden it was, and suspected that a lot of runners hadn’t found it at all (sure enough, my host Rebecca said she hadn’t seen the food at all).
While I was in the middle of getting food, I ran into Ria, my friend’s cousin that I had run with in the early miles. She looked fantastic, with that post-finish line glow (I saw her about 30 seconds after she finished), and happily told me that she had done 4:14 – amazing!! Looks like we all had a pretty great day out there.
Now… time to shower, pack, and fly off to Boston. Another marathon awaits me!
Distance: 26.2 miles
Overall place: 236/501
Gender place: 67/190